One big wish-list item for Jacksonville city leaders: a new convention center.
The arguments against the current spot at Prime Osborn are myriad and well-rehearsed. A new convention center, goes the debate, would bring new people to Jacksonville’s Downtown. It would serve as an argument for all the amenities here in the Bold New City of the South “Where Florida Begins,” and would show that, indeed, “It’s Easier Here.”
Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry has been hearing about the need for a new convention center since before he took office. In 2015, his transition committee recommended a convention center by the river, on property once occupied by the former courthouse and city hall.
That would bring jobs in the retail and service sectors, to be sure. But even at that point, former Mayor John Delaney knew it was a heavy lift, saying, “We’re going to have a new convention center in Jacksonville someday.”
The Downtown Investment Authority was studying the issue then, noting that LaVilla wasn’t exactly a draw for the expense account set.
All true, of course. But there was a rub. As mentioned in those committee meetings, convention centers flourish only during economic booms. Nominally, we’ve been in one for some time, at least in terms of business capital. Realistically, though, it’s all but over; interest rates and the federal deficit are going up, and given the fact that Bush, Obama and Trump spent a solid decade priming the pump, using tricks suited for economic jumpstarts to keep the economy going, one wonders what recovery will look like.
Delaney, who helmed the committee, believed that a new convention center and a reboot of The Jacksonville Landing would help bring Downtown where it needs to be. His legacy was the Better Jacksonville Plan.
Lenny Curry hasn’t hinted at a Better Jacksonville Plan II. What he has done, especially since reamortizing the city’s $3 billion-plus unfunded pension liability, is put money into the city’s massive capital improvement backlog.
We all know what that looks like: busted sidewalks, jacked-up roads and the oft-discussed “unfulfilled promises of Consolidation” in what the euphemists always call “underserved” communities.
Last week, Curry threw cold water on those who thought that one more big-ticket item was in the mix. In a letter to the head of Downtown Investment Authority, Curry noted the “timeline for development and the substantial investment of public dollars would represent a dramatic shift in our capacity to participate in other pending public/private partnerships.”
If Jacksonville “diverts such considerable resources away from other developments for
a convention center, we will still be lacking the additional lifestyle and entertainment that ultimately would ensure its success,” Curry added.
Indeed, the DIA was eyeing a proposal that came in just shy of $600 million ... and one thing is certain: projects in this city never come in under budget. (See: Courthouse, Duval County.)
The city has invested heavily in the sports complex during the last two mayoralties, with $88 million bonded out for scoreboards, improved club seats, swimming pools and an amphitheater.
Has synergy been achieved? While there were promising signs last year as the Jaguars surged late in the season and into the playoffs, Bay Street is still a work in progress in terms of commercial activity and extant commitments.
Curry, should he win re-election next year, will be on the back nine of his tenure. Odds are good that he’ll get the City Council he wants. Recurrent irritants Anna Brosche and Garrett Dennis will be gone, likely replaced by allies.
But Council won’t be the problem. The bigger issues are time and resources. Curry can complete the Hart Bridge refurbishment, get Bay Street in order, decontaminate Metropolitan Park, and get movement on Shad Khan’s plans for the sports complex, but that would likely take most of his next term. And that assumes fiduciary best-case scenarios, and strong cooperation from Tallahassee (which is gearing up for a tight-budget year beyond storm and school hardening).
Does Jacksonville “need” a new convention center? This is the same city that relied on the United Arab Emirates for nearly $3 million in transactional philanthropy so it could finally, more than a year after Irma, do something about Ken Knight Road’s issues.
This is the same city that sees its power grid shredded anytime a tropical storm comes through, especially in older neighborhoods. There’s no money to put power lines underground.
This is the same city that deals with King Tide flooding in places like San Marco. Dredging will ensure other places will join that club. How does a convention center help over there?
Putting on the brakes is a good idea. Time will tell how long that posture holds, but it’s all too clear that, while a new convention center is a wish-list item, it’s not atop the city’s myriad capital needs.